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Inside North Korea's gulag
Twisted by hunger and cruelty, Shin In Geun betrayed his mother, and then watched her hang
 
Shin In Geun is the only known person to have ever escaped from a North Korean labor camp.
Shin In Geun is the only known person to have ever escaped from a North Korean labor camp.
REUTERS/Jacky Naegelen

NINE YEARS AFTER watching his mother's hanging, Shin In Geun squirmed through the electric fence that surrounds Camp 14 and ran off through the snow into the North Korean wilderness. It was Jan. 2, 2005. Before then, no one born in a North Korean political prison camp had ever escaped. As far as can be determined, Shin is the only one to have done it. He was 23 years old and knew no one outside the fence. Within a month, he had walked into China. Within two years, he was living in South Korea. Four years later, he was living in Southern California.

Shin is roughly the same age as Kim Jong Un, the chubby third son of Kim Jong Il, who took over as leader after his father's death, in 2011. Shin was born a slave and raised behind a high-voltage barbed-wire fence. His mother beat him, and he viewed her as a competitor for food. His father, who was allowed by guards to sleep with his mother just five nights a year, ignored him. His older brother was a stranger. Children in the camp were untrustworthy and abusive. Before he learned anything else, Shin learned to survive by snitching on all of them. Love and mercy and family were words without meaning.

Many years later, after she was dead and he was living in the United States, he would tell me that he loved his mother. But that was in retrospect. That was after he learned that a civilized child should love his mother. She never talked to him about her past, her family, or why she was in the camp, and he never asked. His existence as her son had been arranged by guards. They chose her and the man who became Shin's father as prizes for each other in a "reward" marriage.

The eighth rule of Camp 14, as Shin was required to memorize it, said, "Should sexual physical contact occur without prior approval, the perpetrators will be shot immediately." If unauthorized sex resulted in a pregnancy or a birth, the woman and her baby were usually killed.

AS SCHOOL WOUND down on Friday, April 5, 1996, Shin's teacher surprised him. He told Shin that he could go home and eat supper with his mother. Shin did not particularly want to spend the night at his mother's place. The teacher, however, told him to go home. So he went.

When Shin got there, he discovered that his brother, He Geun, had come home too. Shin's mother was not delighted when her youngest son showed up unexpectedly for supper. She did not say "welcome" or that she had missed him.

Then she cooked, using her daily ration of 700 grams of cornmeal to make porridge in the one pot she owned. She and her sons ate on the kitchen floor. After he had eaten, Shin went to sleep in the bedroom.

Voices from the kitchen woke him up. He peeked through the bedroom door, curious about what his mother and brother were up to. His mother was cooking rice. For Shin, this was a slap in the face. He had been served a watery corn soup, the same tasteless gruel he had eaten every day of his life. Now his brother was getting rice.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of rice in North Korean culture. It signifies wealth, evokes the closeness of family, and sanctifies a proper meal. Labor camp prisoners almost never eat rice, and its absence is a daily reminder of the normality they can never have.

In the bedroom, Shin fumed. He also listened.

He Geun had not been given the day off. Without permission, he had walked away from his work post, where he had apparently done something wrong. Shin's mother and brother were discussing what they should do.

Escape.

SHIN WAS ASTONISHED to hear the word. His brother said it. He was planning to run. His mother was helping him. Her precious hoard of rice was food for flight.

Shin's heart pounded. He was angry that she would put his life at risk for the sake of his older brother. He was afraid he would be implicated in the escape — and shot. He was also jealous that his brother was getting rice.

As the aggrieved 13-year-old struggled to contain his fear, Shin's camp-bred instincts took over: He had to tell a guard. He got up off the floor, went into the kitchen, and headed out the door.

Shin ran back to his school. It was 1 in the morning. He entered the school dormitory, woke his friend Hong Sung Jo, and found a guard. Shin said he had something to tell him in exchange for more food and being made "grade leader" at school. The guard agreed. Shin explained what his brother and mother were planning and where they were. The guard telephoned his superiors. He told Shin and Hong to go back to the dormitory and get some sleep. He would take care of everything.

On the morning after he betrayed his mother and brother, uniformed men came to the schoolyard for Shin. He was handcuffed, blindfolded, pushed into the backseat of a jeep, and driven away in silence to an underground prison inside the camp.

"At dawn today, your mother and your brother were caught trying to escape," Shin was told. "That's why you're here. Understand? Were you aware of this fact or not? How is it possible for you not to know that your mother and brother tried to run away? If you want to live, you should spit out the truth."

"I was more faithful to guards than to my family."

On that morning in the underground prison, Shin understood nothing. He was a bewildered 13-year-old. The officer with four stars kept asking him about the whys, whens, and hows of his family's escape plan. Shin was unable to say anything coherent.

Interrogators tortured Shin for several days, grilling him about the attempted escape. What grudges did his mother harbor? What did he discuss with her? What were his brother's intentions? They stripped Shin, tied ropes to his ankles and wrists, and suspended him from a hook in the ceiling. They lowered him over a fire.

A few days after that bout of torture, Shin managed to explain that he was the one who had betrayed his mother and brother. The sessions ended when Hong, Shin's friend who had helped him inform, confirmed what had happened. The guards carried Shin, too weak to walk, to a cramped cell, his new home.

After several months, the guards took Shin to the same prison chamber room where, in early April, he had first been interrogated. Now it was late November. Shin had just turned 14. He had not seen the sun for more than half a year.

What he saw in the room startled him: His father knelt in front of two interrogators, who sat at their desks. He seemed much older and more careworn than before. He had been brought into the underground prison at about the same time as Shin.

His father's right leg canted outward unnaturally. He had also been tortured. Below his knee, his leg bones had been broken, and they had knitted back together at an odd angle. The injury would end his relatively comfortable job as a camp mechanic and lathe operator. He would now have to hobble around as an unskilled laborer on a construction crew.

Shin and his father were handcuffed, blindfolded, and led to the elevator. Aboveground, they were guided into the backseat of a small car and driven away. When the car stopped after about 30 minutes and Shin's blindfold was removed, he panicked.

A crowd had gathered at the empty wheat field near his mother's house. This was the place where Shin had witnessed two or three executions a year since he was a toddler. A makeshift gallows had been constructed, and a wooden pole had been driven into the ground.

Shin was now certain that he and his father were to be executed. He became acutely aware of the air passing into and out of his lungs.

His panic subsided when a guard barked out his father's name.

"Hey, Gyung Sub. Go sit at the very front." Shin was told to go with his father. A guard removed their handcuffs. They sat down. The officer overseeing the execution began to speak. Shin's mother and brother were dragged out. "Execute Jang Hye Gyung and Shin He Geun, traitors of the people," the senior officer said. Shin looked at his father. He was weeping silently. 

The shame Shin feels about the executions has been compounded over the years by the lies he began telling in South Korea. For years after his escape from the camp, he said that he learned of his brother's escape attempt only when the guards told him. He said nothing about snitching on his mother and brother, or of selling them out for a bowl of rice and an easier job in the camp. "There is nothing in my life to compare with this burden," Shin told me. But he was not ashamed on the day of the executions. He hated his mother and brother with the savage clarity of a wronged and wounded adolescent.

AS HE SAW it, he had been tortured and nearly died, and his father had been crippled, because of their foolish, self-centered scheming. When guards dragged her to the gallows, Shin saw that his mother looked bloated. They forced her to stand on a wooden box, gagged her, tied her arms behind her back, and tightened a noose around her neck. They did not cover her swollen eyes. She scanned the crowd and found Shin. He refused to hold her gaze. When guards pulled away the box, she jerked about desperately. As he watched his mother struggle, Shin thought she deserved to die. Shin's brother looked gaunt and frail as guards tied him to the wooden post. Three guards fired their rifles three times. Bullets snapped the rope that held his forehead to the pole. It was a bloody, brain-splattered mess of a killing, a spectacle that sickened and frightened Shin. But he thought his brother, too, had deserved it.

Shin invented a lie about his family's fate — and his role in it — just before arriving in South Korea. "There were a lot of things I needed to hide," he said. "I was terrified of a backlash, of people asking me, 'Are you even human?'"

"Outsiders have a wrong understanding of the camp. It is not just the soldiers who beat us. It is the prisoners themselves who are not kind to each other. There is no sense of community. I am one of those mean prisoners."

Shin said he did not expect forgiveness. He said he had not forgiven himself. He also seemed to be trying to do something more than expiate guilt. He wanted to explain — in a way that he acknowledged would damage his credibility as a witness — how the camp had warped his character.

He said that if outsiders could understand what political prison camps have done — and are doing — to children born inside the fence, it would redeem his lie and his life.

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Escape From Camp 14, by Blaine Harden. ©2012 by Blaine Harden.

 

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